Could Maglev trains be the far-sighted solution?

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The Independent Online

Just imagine getting on a train in London and arriving 400 miles away in Glasgow an hour and 20 minutes later, or nipping down from Manchester to the capital in 40 minutes, or between Birmingham and London in 25 minutes. The current times are respectively four hours 45 minutes, two hours 15 minutes and an hour and a half.

Just imagine getting on a train in London and arriving 400 miles away in Glasgow an hour and 20 minutes later, or nipping down from Manchester to the capital in 40 minutes, or between Birmingham and London in 25 minutes. The current times are respectively four hours 45 minutes, two hours 15 minutes and an hour and a half.

The super-fast journey times could be made possible by the so-called "Maglev" technology, an electro-magnetic system for which the Government is developing an increasing enthusiasm. Having initially registered scepticism, officials are saying it could be an option for a link between London and Scotland.

The only commercially run Maglev route is now taking passengers on the 19-mile journey from Shanghai airport to a new financial centre in the city in just eight minutes - a trip that can take an hour by car.

This is by far and away the fastest train in the world, capable of more than 300mph, and the ride is breathtaking. The train - it is a more like an airliner minus the wings - leaves the station to a salute from a member of staff. One wonders if he is registering respect for one's bravery.

It accelerates, smoothly enough until it reaches 267 mph - nearly 100 miles an hour faster than a British Airways Boeing 777 at take-off. The speed, which was much appreciated by the Chancellor on his recent visit to China, can be fully grasped by watching the cars on an adjacent motorway.

It is possible for passengers to see out of the front of the train, viewing services coming in the opposite direction. The combined velocity is 534mph and the pressure waves created as the two trains pass makes the inexperienced passenger feel he has experienced a millisecond of Armageddon.

To add to the feeling of insecurity, the trains shake slightly from side to side. It is certainly not as smooth as the Japanese Shinkansen, but then the so-called Bullet trains - in common with Eurostars in Britain - only reach a pedestrian 186mph.

The Shanghai Magalev, built by the German multinationals Siemens and ThyssenKrupp, has reached 310mph. The original idea is said to be British, but it has been developed elsewhere.

The Shanghai service is restricted to 267mph because it needs time to decelerate before it reaches its destination. It sustains the maximum operational velocity for a minute or so before its has to slow down.

The carriages float on an electro-magnetic cushion about a centimetre above the guideway. Magnetic fields pull it along the track. A member of the train staff sits at the front of the "Transrapid", but that is simply to reassure passengers, officials say, since the train is operated from a control centre.

The Chinese government is coy about the price of the Shanghai link, but it is thought to have been many times the official £1.1bn figure. German managers reckon the Government would have to spend about £20m a kilometre to build such a link in Britain, without the cost of land. Some British officials are sceptical about the technology and any government's readiness to back it, but the days of "wheel on rail" will eventually come to an end and the only system now capable of replacing it is the one hurtling to and fro in Shanghai.

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